If the Romantic Gothic hero is typically defined by his or her
marginalisation from society and its norms and is characterised by excess,
individualism and transgression, the ultimate act of defiance is
self-annihilation. Given its associations with a long-standing interest in
what has been characterised as ‘the Romantic agony’, it is perhaps
surprising that suicide is not treated as a topic distinct from death in the
critical literature on the Gothic – all the more so with respect to its
connections with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther
(1774) and its notoriety as a work causing suicidal contagion, with
sufferers donning Werther’s blue coat and yellow waistcoat as if exchanging
their bodies for his own. This chapter explores allusions to Werther within
British Gothic writing about suicide, which are to be found particularly in
writings by women. Their retellings of Werther’s story interrogate the
relationship between infection and agency with respect to suicide. Works by
Charlotte Dacre, Charlotte Smith, Sarah Farrell, Mary Wollstonecraft and
Mary Shelley are considered .
This introduction presents an overview of the key concepts discussed in the subsequent chapters of this book. The book demonstrates that incest was representative of a range of interests crucial to writers of the Gothic, often women or homosexual men who adopted a critical stance in relation to the heteronormative patriarchal world. Incest, a sexual act associated with transgression, violations of power and violence, has readily been conflated with sexual violence in Gothic scholarship and consigned to one of two gendered plots. Sexuality, questions of ownership, inheritance, women's subjugation to male authority, laws of coverture and primogeniture and issues concerning gender roles pervade Gothic works from the mid-eighteenth century on. The incest thematic as employed by women writers in the early modern period is shown to be transgressively endogamic in Maureen Quilligan's excellent work on incest in Elizabethan England.
There are several problems that usually emerge in scholarship examining representations of father-daughter incest in the Gothic, even in works by scholars whose goal is to lay bare the feminist themes that are central to the genre. Principal among these is that representations of father-daughter incest often cause works to be placed in the gendered subgenre of Female Gothic and to be viewed through a lens predicated on this generic division. This chapter examines the incestuous relationships between fathers and daughters in Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto, Ann Radcliffe's The Romance of the Forest and Mary Shelley's Matilda and the texts' attendant scholarship. These three works have been selected in order to compare the way that incest is rendered in a representative chronology of Gothic texts beginning with what has been traditionally defined as the original Gothic novel.